Sunday’s cabinet decision to approve the acquisition of 17 F-35s for the Israel Air Force is a belated, necessary result to the partial decision the previous government made nearly three years ago. Then, only a partial equipping was approved in an unusual step that would have left the IAF at the end of the acquisition process with a squadron and a half. It would have been an operational hybrid, which would likely not allow long-term planning and conducting of missions on an ongoing basis. According to the decision, the IAF will have a full complement of two squadrons by 2021 or 2022.
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The question whether to increase the number to three squadrons will come in a few years.
The F-35 is a very controversial plane. It is the most expensive acquisition plan in the history of the American security apparatus. So far it has had a long series of failures, schedule delays and growing expenses. In contrast, the IAF insists that this is the best if not only plane for its needs.
Because the air force particularly excels in organized and effective administrative work, and because it is precisely the subject that no one among the top of the establishment understands like pilots, there was never any doubt that this is how the controversy would be resolved. Remember how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a year ago after the approval of the gas deal “when I want something, I get it”? Were these things said by the air force commander, Gen. Amir Eshel, they would not sound like a hollow boast.
The air force has several arguments in favor of the airplane acquisition. The first regards the Israeli need to be at the forefront of technology, the first country in the region to equip itself with the most advanced jet the Americans can offer, a fifth generation fighter jet, on a relatively quick timetable after the United States started equipping its own forces. It sends a message to its regional neighbors, reinforces Israel’s advantage and contributes to deterrence.
The second practical argument is that the F-35’s payload is known to be less than that of its predecessors, namely the F-15. However, the innovative jet’s evasiveness is supposed to silence the enemy’s radar systems, paving the way for more massive attacks of planes from other models. Israeli military officials also praise the F-35’s ability to operate very far from Israeli territory, being less dependent on the cloak of protection supporting the current generation of fighters.
Moreover, it is no secret that the air force still relies on the outdated F-16 Barak and F-15 Baz squadrons, whose planes have been in service for four decades (the arrival of the Barak on Shabbat toppled the first Rabin government). There will be a need in the coming years to retire some of these planes from service and the first Barak squadron is due to close next year. The replacement, according to senior air force officials, is found in a mixture of the F-35 and the likely continued use of dozens of F-15s.
The overall number of manned airplanes will continued to decrease, but according to the air force, it should not be reduced below a certain floor, which requires additional equipping. Anyway, military officials assert that there is no substantial difference between the price of an F-35 in the new deal and the price of an F-15. The jet’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, claims that the price will fall within three years from approximately $110 million per plane to about $80 million each. The cost of a modern F-15 now stands at over $100 million.
These, of course, are not the only expenses bound up in the deal. Acquiring new planes entails buying parts, weapons and simulators, as well as huge annual maintenance costs. Israel has paid so far, from American assistance, about $5.25 billion for 33 planes. The accompanying costs are enormous. The cost to acquire the last round of 17 planes has yet to be published.
Sunday’s cabinet decision was made after an expedited discussion, for which frightening little time was allocated relative to a previous meeting of that forum regarding the Amona crisis and the regulation bill. It is a typical attitude of the government leadership, which also stood out in the last reports on the approval of the navy’s submarine and patrol boat deals. Minister Yuval Steinitz, whose battle to halt the deal in early 2014 ended in stopping the acquisition of only 33 planes, did not express objections to the decision this time. Neither did the other ministers.
The last time, by the way, Steinitz recruited the support of four cabinet ministers from Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, among them the foreign minister at the time, Avigdor Lieberman. This time, Lieberman is defense minister, and he consistently supports expanding military acquisitions and also justifies the decision regarding purchasing the submarines. (On Monday he reiterated that there was nothing wrong with the cabinet’s handling of the submarine deal.)
American administration officials struggled then to understand the Israeli decision as being “half pregnant” and agreed only barely to go ahead with the deal, assuming Israel would eventually decide to complete the acquisition to fill two squadrons.
This is indeed what happened. The air force is still interested in increasing the number to three squadrons, with 75 planes in the next multiyear plan from 2021 onward. The prime minister already expressed interest in purchasing the F-35B, which has vertical takeoff and landing capability. This question has yet to be answered, although some in the military have reservations about the added value of acquiring it.